Tuesday, February 5, 2013

James Baldwin's Schools Now

James Baldwin was born and raised in Harlem, and he attended three New York public schools. Recently while doing some writing on Baldwin I became curious about how Baldwin's schools were doing now, so I looked them up. This kind of research is inspired by one of my writing heroes, Jonathan Kozol, who analyzes symbols like the names of schools to express his vivid outrage about educational injustice.

The short version of my discoveries is this: all of James Baldwin's schools are now "college prep," non-neighborhood high schools. His elementary school is a charter high school, his middle school is a "contract" high school, and his high school is a magnet-ey neighborhood high school. NYCPS prides itself on offering families "options." So, if you want your child to go to high school, move to New York. But plan to pay for private school until high school (about which, in New York, we've heard plenty).

Backstory: A friend of mine wrote me a sweet and incredibly thoughtful note about my post about sisterhood. Because she was writing so much personal stuff about herself, she didn't want to comment publicly on my blog, so I'm going to keep her anonymous here, but she's an awesome woman. One thing she mentioned in her note was something that I had not known about her before: her grandfather was a classmate of Baldwin's at the very storied Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. Celebrity Shortlist: Countee Cullen, James Baldwin, Romare Bearden, Stan Lee, Bob Kane, and Tracy Morgan, as well as dozens of influential people in prestigious mid-century New York professions: fashion (Ralph Lauren), essay-writing (Lionel Trilling), filmmaking (George Cukor).

Basically if you were born in Harlem or the Bronx, but then moved to Greenwich Village when you grew up, then there's a good chance you went to DeWitt Clinton. If producing celebrities is one of the measures of a school, then DeWitt Clinton is one of the greatest college-prep-cum-liberal-arts public schools ever. But, by today's measures, DeWitt Clinton is a "bad" school: New York State got a D on Michelle Rhee's recent and instantly infamous, completely disgusting report card, which makes me want to vomit so much that I refuse to link to it. Suffice to say, it seems pretty clear to me (and to most teachers I know) that Michelle Rhee was not a good teacher.

He is pissed.

OK, so that was the backstory. Here is the real story. Baldwin attended three New York schools, which he often referred to in public only by the P.S. numbers, which have all changed.

In this interview, one of Baldwin's earlier television appearances (on public television, Boston's WGBH), Baldwin names two of his three schools, at first only by number: P.S.24 and P.S.139. When I looked these schools up in the New York City schools database, however, they were no longer the numbers of schools in Harlem, and Baldwin often got their numbers wrong anyway.

For elementary school, Baldwin attended New York P.S. 24 in East Harlem. The school as it was no longer exists, and so I could not find its former name. Thanks to the magic of Google Street View, however, I was able to find out that the school building does still exist (as they often do). The school is now called--wait for it--Harlem Renaissance High School!

Wow. There is so much to say about this, but, to be brief: it does not surprise me, after my decade studying education off- and on- (as a hobby), that James Baldwin's elementary school would have been shuttered, renovated into a charter high school, and named for the Harlem Renaissance, which now goes by many other names in academia.* There is so much irony going on with this school that it makes my head spin. Baldwin would be pleased, but also pissed. Why? Because they couldn't be bothered to name the school after one of the many dozens of brilliant African Americans who actually went there--like Countee Cullen, or like James Baldwin.

In the video interview with Kenneth Clarke cited above, Baldwin notes (with a sardonic grin) the irony that his all-black middle school in Harlem is named after Frederick Douglass. How is Frederick Douglass Junior High doing now? Well, its name has changed, as well as its number. When Baldwin attended, it was P.S. 139, and now it goes more strictly by its name. When Baldwin attended, it was Frederick Douglass Junior High. Now, it is Frederick Douglass Academy High School, Jewel of the Westside, Where Failure is Not an Option. In brief: Baldwin's middle school, named for the most legendary black man in the history of America, "failed" and was reborn as a high school where Failure is Impossible Just Because the School Says So.

Baldwin's high school is probably the most well-known of his three schools. As noted above, the Bronx's DeWitt Clinton boasts a stunning list of notable alumni on this Wikipedia page. DeWitt's own website does not have a list of notable alumni, but DeWitt has an alumni association, a rare thing for a public school in an urban or a rural area, but a definite font of cash for most schools that have one.

So, the only one of Baldwin's three schools that still exists is the one that is the best endowed. Endowments matter. The two richest college prep schools in America--Phillips Exeter and Phillips Academy in Andover--have larger endowments than most colleges. Endowment also comes in the form of cultural capital, or fame. When your school has low test scores, but you have successful alumni, their success redounds to the school, which, in turn, makes the students from the school more successful, and usually in creative or scientific fields. (Stuyvesant, the most famous New York Public High School, has bragging rights to a number of Nobel Prizes.) Basically, if you want to find a famous urban high school, go to a hipster neighborhood and walk around a little bit. In Boston's Jamaica Plain, the old high school has been converted into condos. It's the virtuous circle of capitalism: philanthropy, prestige, and--oh yeah--pulling yourself up by your bootstraps--will make up for deficits like endemic generational poverty, about which this country seems more or less committed to doing nothing. Baldwin would not be pleased.

Now, you may call this a travesty of history, and it is indeed comical. But, as with most histories, it says more about who we as a nation are now than it does about who James Baldwin was when he attended these schools. An institution has a history that inheres in infrastructure--a name, a building--even if the school changes numbers or changes leaders. Think about how easy it is to recognize a school from the outside. School architecture matters, and we can think of any school's architecture as an artifact of our nation's architecture. A school is like a magnet: it can attract or repel wealth. I'm guessing there are people who still give money to DeWitt Clinton, easily the most "successful" of the three former-Baldwin schools, because it is the school of Stan Lee, or James Baldwin, or Charles Rangel, or Tracy Morgan. For comparison, if you live in Chicago, you might want to arrange a visit to the storied Wendell Phillips [Academy] High School, where many of my friends teach (because, disclosure: it is now operated by AUSL).

The Horatio Alger story is older than Horatio Alger, but, like all old stories, we should be careful not to love them just because they are old. This particular fairy tale, known as the American Dream, inspires many Americans to believe in a system that is terribly unequal, particularly if you want to do anything that was historically done by a woman, or a man playing a woman onstage (a "queer" man)--professions like teaching, librarianship, stay-at-home-motherhood, nursing, art-making, writing, acting, directing, designing, or anything involving left-handedness.

If the U.S. wants to fix poverty by fixing schools, they're going to need to look for what teachers call "modifications," but what might otherwise be considered, in contemporary Supreme Court jurisprudence, affirmative action. The first thing would be to invest in the impoverished communities that surround most "failing" schools, such as what Harlem Children's Zone founder Geoffrey Canada calls "Baby College" for at-risk parents and Head Start programs. The second thing, after early childhood spending, would be to provide extra supports for students who learn in different ways. At the Quaker school we called these students "students with learning differences." In CPS most people call them "Sped kids," but the more appropriate way to describe them is "students with disabilities." When I was a kid, we called these students by names that adults don't use in polite conversation anymore, but students use all the time, and names that I refuse on principle to reproduce in this context. But if you ever were called one of these names, called someone one of these names, or watched someone call someone one of these names, then you know what they are. And they all mean pretty much the same thing: either "cool" or "not cool."

Here's the thing, though, and maybe I can be so bold as to guess what James Baldwin might have wanted to see if he were alive today. Maybe the way to fix poverty is to address poverty, rather than attack the profession and the dignity of the teachers and administrators who work with the children of the poor every day of their working lives, and the dignity and work of the families that those schools serve.

Here's a fascinating note to end on. There is one James Baldwin School that shows up in a Google search. It is a private alternative high school in Greenwich Village. They refer to the school as JBS, just like my school, which was named after a transcendentalist naturalist: John Burroughs.

*Most academics who study African American literature now call it the New Negro Renaissance or, for academics who do not wish to distinguish activity by black artists from activity by white artists, just plain modernism. This is mostly because to say that the movement was "centered" in Harlem is inaccurate, as this diagram illustrates nicely--half of the people on this diagram never lived in Harlem, many of them were white, and Washington, D.C., Chicago, Nashville, Atlanta, Detroit, Boston, Seattle, St. Louis, and Cleveland, and later L.A. and Oakland, were also hubs of black intellectual activity. Let's put it this way: basically, in any major American city with an immigrant/migrant population, a strong settlement house movement, or a "university" vibe, there were black intellectuals being born and being raised. 

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